Posted in Mental Health, Music, Writing

Facing the Darkness: Happy Belated Birthday to the Man in Black

Johnny Cash’s birthday was yesterday. And I have once again missed my goal to post on Tuesday or Wednesday between 9 am and noon. Oh hell, I think the Man in Black would be understanding – if not downright proud – of all of my day late and a buck short bullshit and procrastination. It’s the stuff of sad country songs and tortured artists grasping at redemption. Johnny embodied both.

I grew up listening to Johnny Cash because my father loved him. But I didn’t really fall in love with Johnny until September of 2004. That’s when my mom died. My dad and my brother played Johnny constantly as we gathered at my parents’ house in the days preceding and following her passing. A multi-disc “best of” set and the first four albums in Cash’s American series were in constant rotation.

The whole American series, especially the first four, released while Johnny (and my mother) were still alive remain my favorites. While American V was great and sixth installment was okay (both were released posthumously) the first four continue to blow me away. And over time, American III: Solitary Man has earned an extra special place in the Cash cannon for me.

The album was not quite as highly praised as the the first American Recordings album which earned Cash one of two spots in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time List or American IV, which also made a lot of “best of” lists, including one of Johnny’s three placements in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. But American III is a great album in its own right. Perhaps more than any of his other albums, it highlights Cash’s simultaneous status as both a Nashville outsider and country music icon.

Since the 1970’s Johnny (along with fellow outliers like Waylon and Willie ) had been seen as an outlaw flipping off Nashville’s Music Row and at the same time, a name that is inescapable when talking about “classic country” music. Together, they redefined a sound, an era, and a whole damn genre. And in the late 90’s and early 00’s Johnny Cash, with a bit of help from Rick Rubin, did it again with his American series. Like his titular cover of Neil Diamond’s Solitary Man suggests, Cash was in many ways a loner. The contradictory themes of Bottles and Bibles has become so prevalent in country music that Tyler Childers named his 2011 debut just that. Yet few people have walked the line between those poles of sinner and saint earnest believer clawing at the arc of redemption with as much sincerity and grit as John R. Cash.

All of the songs here highlight those polarities: in Johnny, in all of us. He is the Solitary Man, Country Trash, and Wayfaring Stranger, who ain’t got Nobody. He envies that Lucky Old Sun that “just rolls around Heaven all day.” And yet in a time when he was facing increasing health problems, Cash was determined to come out of the gate swinging with the help of a whole host of family and friends and his cover of Tom Petty’s Won’t Back Down. He pleads to his lover: Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone). And the very personal liner notes, penned by Cash himself are bubbling with the family names of Carter and Cash as well as a diverse group of friends from Sheryl Crow to Merle Haggard.

It is Johnny’s cover of Will Oldham’s I See a Darkness (assisted by Oldham himself) that is the crown jewel of the album for me. Maybe it’s because my daily music listening habits at the time were evolving to embrace more than Hip-Hop, Alternative Rock and Metal, towards inclusion of Alt Country, Folk and Indie Rock. Cash had previously covered Soundgarden, Danzig and NIN. Now he was covering Oldham aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Maybe it’s because I discovered this album around the time of my mom’s death. Maybe it’s because the previous year I was diagnosed for the first time with Clinical Depression, Anxiety Disorder, “PTSD like symptoms” and a learning disability. But those were just names for struggles I have dealt with my whole life.

This, this is why I fell so deeply in love with the album, this song, and in part why I finally heard Johnny. I have lived that song. I still live that damn song. I’ve always seen the Darkness. And people do not truly survive the darkness alone. Even if our companions are fellow Wayfaring Strangers, outlaws, misfits, other addicts or the fathers and brothers we connect with more through music than with words or hugs. There are no solitary men or women in the darkness, at least not ones who survive. If you are there, if you see the ever-present darkness too, you are not alone. Or at least you don’t have to be. Even when that darkness tries to swallow the light and life screams “death” in your face, we all need a “Buddy,” a “best unbeaten brother.” I choose to survive, to thrive if and when possible. Johnny did, until his body could no longer sustain his will and drive. I hope you will too:

Well, you’re my friend
And can you see
Many times we’ve been out drinking
Many times we’ve shared our thoughts
But did you ever, ever notice
The kind of thoughts I got?
Well, you know I have a love
A love for everyone I know
And you know I have a drive
To live, I won’t let go
But can you see this opposition
Comes rising up sometimes?
That it’s dreadful imposition
Comes blacking in my mind
And then I see a darkness
And then I see a darkness
And then I see a darkness
And then I see a darkness
Did you know how much I love you?
Is a hope that somehow you
Can save me from this darkness
Well, I hope that someday, buddy
We have peace in our lives
Together or apart
Alone or with our wives
And we can stop our whoring
And pull the smiles inside
And light it up forever
And never go to sleep
My best unbeaten brother
This isn’t all I see
Oh no, I see a darkness
Oh no, I see a darkness
Oh no, I see a darkness
Oh no, I see a darkness
Did you know how much I love you?
Is a hope that somehow you
Can save me from this darkness

Let us save! Let us save each other!

Posted in Writing

Longing and Transcendence: Ian Noe’s Between the Country

On down between the country
Where deer lay along the road
On down between the country
Where a long life is a blessed one, I’m told

I know, I know long absence from blogging, followed by a declaration of “I’m back,” only to veer off course once again. I am no longer foolish enough to trick myself into believing that I can write in this space daily or even several times a week. But I am determined to share my thoughts and practice my craft in this space at least once per week. And I’m behind already. So let’s get to it. I hope that with time it will become evident that I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel on music blogging. I have no desire to keep up with Pitchfork or the Anthony Fantanos of the world. I hope it is also evident that the particular pieces of art are not being “reviewed” in any conventional sense, but rather they serve as a conduit, a pathway to opening up about some very personal things. And perhaps, with time, these musings will invite a larger conversation – exploring narratives, ideas and emotions – that these pieces of art invite us to have.

And so with that, I’m taking a leap from 1991 to 2019. Ian Noe’s masterful debut album Between the Country was hands down my favorite album last year. And I listened to a lot of albums, from a wide variety of artists and various genres. All though it’s still recent, so recent that perhaps it’s too early to tell, I am quite certain Between the Country will stand the test of time as one of my favorite albums of the last decade.

As the title track implies, Noe invites his listeners to the spaces between. In an interview last year explaining what the phrase Between the Country means to him and why he chose that song to serve as the title track, Noe said, “Just being in the country, and everything that’s going on in between it. In between this hill or mountain, or what’s going on up in this holler, that’s what it means… It was like some people don’t make it past 40, you know? And that’s everywhere, it’s not just in a small town. But I didn’t grow up everywhere. I grew up in Lee County.”

In the particular is contained the universal. This is just as true now as when James Joyce said it nearly a hundred years ago. It has always been true. Where Joyce’s writing was grounded in the particulars of Dublin, Ireland in the early Twentieth Century, Ian Noe writes songs full of colorful characters and strange peculiarities drawn from life in Eastern Kentucky in the early Twenty-first Century.

Irene shows up on her parents’ porch at midnight “lit on the smoke and beer.” Her mother is concerned about whether or not Irene is ‘livin’ right within.’ Her father expresses his concern that she “don’t seem to be quite well.” At first blush, the chorus sounds uplifting, celebratory even of Irene’s alcohol as coping mechanism lifestyle: “Old Irene like a ravin’ bomb, she’s cuttin’ every rug And killin’ every jug she comes upon. Old Irene Don’t believe in pain. She said ‘To live this life You need a half a pint To keep you sane.’” But when Irene has her chance to speak, and respond to her parents’ concerns we get a bleak glimpse into the heart of a woman who can’t escape the pain, no matter how hard she might try in vein to do so:

Irene said, “But I ain’t happy
Sometimes I wake up feeling dead
And if the sun should shine
I close my blinds
Pretend there’s rain instead
I took down all my mirrors
I gave away all my rope and guns
Drown the darkest time
With some rot gut wine
And my faithful M.A.S.H. reruns

Irene (Ravin’ Bomb) sets the tone for the whole album. The narrator in the sorrowful and gospel infused Junk Town recounts being stuck in the same dead end place for most of his life: “Spending all my money on me and my junked-out wife.” He laments the cold winters that “never did anybody any good” and “burning up in the summer, hauling those heavy loads.” He and his wife have been “junkin’ through many troubled years” in an effort “to keep away those cold sweat fears.” But the drugs are not their ultimate hope:

And glory, glory
We are waitin’
That sweet someday
When we leave our troubles
And are taken
So far away

As the album unfolds, a bank robber dies trying to secure a better life in Letter to Madeline. Several strangers look forward to the better life they hope against hope to soon be living on If Today Doesn’t Do Me In. A serial killer needs to evacuate town in Dead on the River (Rolling Down). And a small town guy who is fed up and has had enough, digs a hole in his back yard to ensnare the zombie-like creatures his neighbors have become in Meth Head.

Almost all of Noe’s cast of characters share a similar longing. In the stories of substance abuse, religious yearning, bank heists, unrequited love and even violence it would be easy – perhaps too easy – to name this shared longing as a desire to escape. While similar, there is also substantial difference between escape and what these folks – hurting, broken or even evil – truly long for… transcendence!

Irene takes down her mirror and gives away her rope and guns. She may spend her days dulling the pain. But she holds on for dear life and does not surrender to the pain. She goes back to the place where the pain begins for so many people who struggle with addiction, their home of origin. Our bank robber tells Madeline, “When I get home, we’ll have a grand old time.” And in the case he doesn’t make it, he instructs her not to cry but rather, “Just set me up a stone on that high hillside.” Serial killers, dark and twisted as the pathology may be, long to leave a mark on the world, a reputation that will outlive their numbered days on this spinning sphere we all live and die on. And the “desperate fuckin’ meth head” is just that… desperate! As sure as the narrator in the song is desperate to outwit and outlive him.

Escape is about leaving, departing, going somewhere, anywhere else. Transcendence is about liberation, evolution, changing yourself or transforming your surroundings. The characters Ian Noe introduces us to over the course of Between the Country’s 37 minutes all seem to long for the latter, for transcendence. Or at the very least, he seems to want that for them. I might not be so convinced of this if it wasn’t for the title track and its placement as the last song on the album. Arson, murder, and the “old junkie curse” of “facing hard time” all in one song. And it’s all happening between the country, where deer lay along the road. Where a blessed life is a long one (or at least so we’ve all been told).

Noe is a brilliant young songwriter! He writes about some things he knows and some things he only knows of, but all things ‘happening between this hill or mountain, or… up in this holler’ in the particulars of his surroundings in Beattyville and the encompassing areas in Eastern Kentucky. And from these particulars come stories of universal longing.

I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in America’s poorest white town. But I certainly know what it is like to struggle with addiction. Like Irene, I’ve had my own battle with alcohol abuse and days that I closed the blinds, pretended it was raining and sat in front of the television with reruns of a favorite show. I’ve never robbed a bank. But I’d be lying if I said I’ve never dreamed about it. I feel like nearly every day, I live the sentiment of If Today Doesn’t Do Me In.

Last year, I faced down my first full year of sobriety. I entered into a new marriage. And in general, I really celebrated life! New life! Or at least a “new lease” on an old one. I also have been digging through the wreckage of a broken career path, an education that feels almost completely wasted and trying to figure out what the fuck to do with this gift of writing. I have been hiding it. Hiding it for fear that It’s not as much of a gift as I hope or that others tell me it is. I started the year by finally letting go of my status as an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. I ended the year with stepping away from the open mic that I established and have been hosting for the last 5 years. In between those two poles: one of slow, gradual collapse and one of quick and sudden change, I started to finally write – really, really write – a memoir I have been talking about writing for the last 5 years. I quit my dead end job to write and to take time to look for a career where I can use my degree and my experience working with youth, doing hospital visitations and comforting grieving people. This time to just try to figure shit out has been a luxury! A luxury that I know not many people are afforded. It has been a time for which I will be forever grateful to my partner and wife, Amanda! I am grateful for her not only “allowing” me but encouraging me to take this precious time. In this time between times so full of celebration, loss and change, Ian Noe has been a fantastic companion. And Between the Country has been my constant soundtrack.

Posted in Beauty, Health, Writing

Dream It All Up Again

This is just the end of something for U2. And that’s what we’re playing these concerts – and we’re throwing a party for ourselves and you. It’s no big deal, it’s just – we have to go away and … and dream it all up again. ~ U2’s Bono, December 31, 1989 at the Point Depot in Dublin, Ireland

It has become a well worn mantra that U2 fans know well. The New Year’s 1989 show in Dublin was broadcast on RTÉ and BBC radio all around the world. It was near the end of the Lovetown Tour in support of the band’s 1988 album Rattle and Hum.

They would re-emerge almost two years later, in November of 1991 with this gem of an album. Achtung Baby was simultaneously more dazzling, yet darker than the world had ever heard them before. In marked contrast to the soaring, anthemic delay and reverb laden guitars of The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, this album shimmered with electronic and dance elements and keyboard sounds from The Edge and producer Brian Eno that were wildly different compared Edge’s piano work on their 1981, sophomore album, October. The 4 lads from Ireland also had an aesthetic makeover. A collage of industrial, religious and somewhat self-aggrandizing images adorned the cover art. Bono’s hair was shorter, slicker and darker. The blonde highlights of their brilliant Live Aid era were long gone. And when they hit the road to support the album with the ambitious Zoo TV tour, the future was so bright that Bono’s shades became a permanent staple of his public persona. Yes, I’m aware of his glaucoma. But the shades were also tightly wound-up and tied-in with Bono’s new leather-clad “Fly” and “MacPhisto” stage personas. Peacock strutting, prank phone calls to the white-house, and mockery of TV Evangelists also became part of the live experience in this era.

In contrast to the sonic sparkles and glitz-trash-glam image (I mean that in the most complimentary of ways), Bono’s lyrics took a darker, more introspective turn than usual. Heavy, socially relevant topics were nothing new for the band. “Mothers of the Disappeared” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” had both addressed corrupt governments and US Military presence in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In “Sunday Bloody Sunday” they spoke up loud and clear about the conflict in Northern Ireland that lead to a bloody massacre in 1972. If you have never seen the Rattle and Hum, live performance of the song that was recorded the evening of the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen, watch it right now!

To put a few things into context, Achtung Baby was released 84 days after Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten and only 56 days after Nirvana’s “Grunge comes crashing into Suburbia” second album, Nevermind and 63 days after Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I & II . Without necessarily intending to do so, U2 set out to show the world that “alternative” was a large expansive (nearly useless) category that had roots in New Wave and Post-Punk and stadium-packing arena-ready rock did not belong solely to the Sunset Strip -its quickly fading Aqua Net endorsing hair bands- or the more muscular, tough boy classic rock that was replacing it. And the young Chris Martins and Dan Reynolds of the world must have been paying attention (but that’s a whole different tangent, best saved for a different day).

As I sit here today and allow myself to be pummeled once again by the non stop bass thump of this album – interrupted only by the mega-hit ballad “One” and the flipping of the records on this double LP press – I wait in anticipation once again to hear Bono sing from the perspective of Judas Iscariot on “Until the End of the World” and speak-sing absurdities from Irina Dunn on “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World.” I still crack a smile every time I get to that line “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”

But it is the album closing trio of songs – each a bit darker than the last – that I still wait for with bated breath upon each new listen. And this is is the section of the album that reminds me most that U2 had to ‘go away to dream it all up again.’ I think of “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” as a squeal of sorts to “Gloria” from the band’s most overtly religious album October. On the surface “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” is about a desperate romantic relationship with the over the top and cliché “baby, baby, baby” lyric. But Bono has never been shy about his Christian beliefs and has always given fans more than enough allusion to the Bible and Christian tradition to fuel the never ending “is it about a girl or about Jesus” conversations among a certain sect of U2 fans. Before, on “Gloria” those allusions were more like evangelistic mantras or church pew confessions, complete with bits of Latin phrases: “Only in you I’m complete.. Gloria in te domine; Gloria exultate; Oh Lord, if I had anything, anything at all, I’d give it to you.” But on Ultraviolet, the lyrics give just enough for U2 biographers and fan web-boards to claim that everything in the song serves as a metaphor for for divine presence lighting the way in the darkest of times. Some folks say the lyrics allude to one of the Bible’s darkest and most mysterious books, Job (“When his candle shined upon my head, and when by his light I walked through darkness”). In any case, I love this song and firmly believe that more often than not, love – real love, the good stuff – often feels more like being lost in the dark, grasping for the other than it does feeling like one is completely found. Communication – whether familial, platonic or romantic – is elusive, slippery and difficult.

We would all ‘reach out, if we only knew where to hit.’ This leads to my favorite cut on this album and my favorite U2 song of all time, “Acrobat.” Bono himself calls it a song about hypocrisy. Hypocrisy of a rich rock star with deep religious roots, a wife, children and all of the inherent tension and potential pitfalls that predicament implies. The song has taken on a status of mythical proportions among die-hard U2 fans. It was rehearsed for the Zoo TV tour in 1991 and ’92, and has been one of the bands most requested songs for live performances. However, they never performed it in front of a live audience until 2018! 2018! While the complex time signature is often sited as the reason for its glaring absence in the U2 live catalog, I have always believed it is simply because it is one of the most personal of songs that Paul Hewson – the man behind the moniker, shades, and endless reinventions – has ever written…

And I’d join the movement
If there was one I could believe in
Yeah I’d break bread and wine
If there was a church I could receive in
‘Cause I need it now
To take a cup
To fill it up
To drink it slow
I can’t let you go
I must be an acrobat
To talk like this
And act like that
And you can dream
So dream out loud
And don’t let the bastards grind you down

Just do a web search for “Bono Christianity,” “U2 Spirituality,” or if you’re up for some real bat-shit craziness, try throwing “Bono Antichrist” in the Google search. The same people that lift you up on a pedestal and put your image on the cover of Christianity Today, will throw you to the wolves the next day. The tension between the highest ideals we aspire to and our basest instincts may leave one feeling stretched thin, like an acrobat. But it is the family that has no place for us at the table that will tear us apart. One doesn’t need to share in Bono’s Christian faith to heed the inherent warning: it is our “brothers,” our “sisters” who will inflict the deepest wounds, tear you apart, and… Grind. You. Down.

Who is my brother? Who is my sister? My mother, my father? Who am I? Complex questions beg the simplest yet most complex of answers, love – true love – is blindness. I am ready now to be pummeled by one last thumping, spiritual and sensual, cold and sweaty bass line: “Love is blindness I don’t want to see won’t you wrap the night Around me? Oh my love Blindness.” Its such a truism, I could fumble on endlessly trying to give some further elucidation.

I haven’t written in this space in nearly two years. A lot has happened in that time. Amanda and I married on March 20, 2019. This July, I will celebrate 2 years without a drop of alcohol. I have been reading. I have been writing, writing, writing (not in this space, but writing nonetheless). I have been tackling my own tohu wa-bohu (Hebrew: תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ‎). Deeper into darkness. Deeper into light. I had to go away and dream it all up again. I’m back. Achtung Baby!